Politics & Policy

Enlightenment Spin: The Galileo Myth; The Times’s Slip Is Showing; Media Shill Update


The Washington Times reports a very nice story this morning. Catholic scientists, or scientists who are Catholic, whatever makes you more comfortable, are trying to combat the notion that the Church is anti-science. “The Galileo incident has made the Church a whipping boy,” Thomas P. Sheahen of the Catholic Association of Scientists and Engineers told the paper.

Of course, he is referring to the story everyone learns in grade school; a lovable old scientist is condemned to Hell for refusing to deny the truth of the cosmos (in this case the Copernican notion of heliocentricity — the sun’s the center of things rather than the earth). The story is employed to teach children that closed-minded religious people are afraid of science and the truth. Virtually every morally troubling development in science results in a public invocation of this old saw. If Galileo is not called as a central witness for the scientists, then his ghost is surely conjured by the press.

The problem is, it’s spin. Ancient, pro-enlightenment, zealot spin.

Robert Nisbet in (probably my favorite book) Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary, writes that the Galileo myth was adopted by the French Enlightenment to discredit the Catholic Church. Their first choice for martyr was Isaac Newton. Unfortunately, Newton was a religious fanatic in their eyes. So they picked Galileo instead and rewrote significant aspects of his biography (like the obvious fact that he was religious) so as to make the Church the darkest of villains.

Western Civilization’s love of the individual in pursuit of the truth is perhaps its greatest attribute. So it shouldn’t be shocking that we are all very receptive to the idea. “From Diderot to Brecht, the myth of Galileo the rationalist-scientist-martyr dominated Western thought, and even today it shows few signs of abating,” wrote Nisbet in 1982.

He was right. Galileo is still the reigning symbol for the idea that religion can’t handle the truth and that the Catholic Church as a matter of settled policy punishes those who speak it.

Yes, Galileo was eventually found guilty of heresy. But his problems stemmed first and foremost from jealous fellow-scientists. Galileo’s first muzzle was one he put on himself. In 1597 he wrote a letter to Johannes Kepler (the first big Copernican and discoverer of the three laws of moving planet stuff). In the letter, Galileo told Kepler that, yeah Copernicus got things right, but he thought the Aristotelian academic establishment would have a cow if he said so publicly.

Twelve years later he created his own astronomical telescope and confirmed the existence of lunar moons, stars in the Milky Way, and various “planets” revolving around Jupiter. A year later he wrote “The Starry Messenger” and he won piles of awards, a cushy job, and all sorts of junk that they would have had on The Price is Right if it existed back then (“I’d say that Saracen’s head costs 12 guineas, Roberto”).

Galileo went to Rome to show his findings to the Vatican. Despite the fact that his research couldn’t have been more Copernican if it had been titled, “As told by Copernicus,” the Church gave him all sorts of attaboys. While in Rome for a couple years he published more Copernican-friendly papers, and the Church green-lighted all of it with nary a word or a restriction on distribution.

After Galileo went back to Padua, the leading scientific mediocrities started complaining. It was the scientists who said that challenging Aristotle was heresy — not the Church. If Aristotle became obsolete than these guys would lose their prestigious posts and lucrative tutoring gigs. Much like Communist academics in Eastern Europe who invested a lifetime in Marxist theory, they had a lot more to lose from change. So, the tenured guild of professors enlisted the aid of the Dominicans (a rowdy and preachy bunch) to denounce Galileo.

In Tuscany, numerous Church officials and lay nobles supported Galileo during the assault. Still, Galileo had to return to Rome to face his accusers. He went. It was a big fight. The Vatican ordered him to hold off pursuing very specific areas of teaching until some corrections could be made to his last book. Galileo even got a letter from the Vatican hierarchy stating that he didn’t have to recant anything.

So Galileo went home and kept publishing other stuff with explicit permission of the Church, including The Assayer, a rejoinder to some Jesuit criticisms. Galileo argued that doubt was necessary to all scientific research. He dedicated the book to an old friend who just happened to be the new Pope. Who happened to love the book. The Pope subsequently gave his blessing for a new Galilean magnum opus that would cover everything known to date about Copernican and Ptolemaic science. The Pope did ask that Galileo keep it objective and scientific. His Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems was a huge kick in the pants to the Aristotelians, and it generated a lot of controversy — as good science always does — but the Church didn’t stop the publication or the debate, let alone sew a starving squirrel to Galileo’s pancreas.

Galileo’s James Carville was no preacher, but a scientist named Schreiner (it helps if you say his name the way Seinfeld says “Neumann”). He fanned the flames in Rome until the Pope felt obliged to call a trial under the Inquisition. The head of the Inquisition was a Galileo supporter, who hoped to get the whole thing over with quickly by just giving him a formal reprimand. Unfortunately, rabble-rousers and opportunists turned the heat up. The trial is very complicated but the result was that Galileo got house arrest, which is where he did all of his research anyway. He was permitted to correspond with any scientist he wanted and he wrote the Dialogue Concerning Two New Sciences while under the Man’s thumb.

As Nisbet points out, this is not exactly the story one gets from the made-for-TV movies or high-school textbooks. The Church had the same problems of any major political institution and other challenges unique to being the Catholic Church. It had to contend with politics and intrigue and in-fighting and cravenness. But it also had legions of people fighting for truth and fairness in a difficult time beset with bizarre politics. Marxists, like Bertold Brecht, and liberals, like all of your (non-Marxist) college professors, seized upon the notion of a monolithic and superstitious Church because the aim was to discredit the Church specifically and religion in general. Religion with its faith in the unprovable and the perfection of the hereafter is, and always has been, the greatest threat to those who believe we can perfect the here and now through “scientific methods.”

Again Nisbet, “Rivalry, jealousy, and vindictiveness from other scientists and philosophers were Galileo’s lot.…[and] anyone who believes that inquisitions went out with the triumph of secularism over religion has not paid attention to the records of foundations, federal research agencies, professional societies…” etc.

Indeed, one need not look much further than then-Senator Al Gore’s treatment of dissenters on global warming to see how modern inquisitions work. Anyone who questions global warming in front of Gore faces the secular excommunication of being called an industry shill.

The scientists discussed in today’s Washington Times say that Catholicism has much to tell science, most especially the idea that “you can’t use an evil means even for a good end.” That’s a great place to start, but it shouldn’t end there.


Speaking of hegemonic liberal orthodoxy (was that what I was speaking about? I can’t remember), today’s New York Times is a great example. The Times has a huge article on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. It wrings its hands about the fact that this cell of conservatives is trying to do conservative things and it’s succeeding. Is it possible to think that the Times would ever run a hand-wringing piece about a liberal circuit succeeding at doing liberal things?


Sorry for all the big thumb-suck stuff today. It looks like I’ll be playing with Michael Moore tonight (9:30 I think) on Fox’s Hannity & Colmes, so I’m saving my bile for that.